Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less. ~ Myra Pollack Sadker, Author and Advocate for Promoting Equity in and Beyond Schools
The National Women’s History Project (“NWHP”) has designated March as Women’s History Month. Underlying its founding and continued progress over the last 35 years is the theme, “Writing Women Back into History.”
This year the organization’s theme for their month-long celebration is reminiscent of writing memoir: “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.”
Last Thursday I shared Part 1 of this post listing five of the ten women writers I felt had contributed greatly to our genre.
Today I share the other five and again reiterate there is no way all the women instrumental in opening the doors of memoir writing to us could be listed. Here is my list of the second five of my ten choices of women memoir writers (listed in no particular order):
Annie Dillard (1945- ) began life after education, obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Hollins College and an M.A. in addition to marrying her writing teacher, R.H.W. Dillard, painting, writing, and like other women writers in this list keeping a journal. It is from that journal and reading an old writer’s nature book that she said, “I can do better than this.” And the result was time spent near Roanoke, Virginia, near her childhood home. Dillard writes beautiful, poetic prose. Her works almost completely define creative narrative nonfiction. Using evocative and inspirational language, Dillard takes her reader into another world. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a must read for any serious memoir writer.
It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale.” ~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Joan Didion (1934- ) is an iconic voice in the world of narrative nonfiction and, in my opinion, memoir writing. A good example is her book, A Year of Magical Thinking. Didion shares a year in which she and her husband watched as their only child, a daughter, falls seriously ill and is put into an induced coma. Shortly afterwards, just before New Year’s Day Didion’s husband collapses as they sit down for a meal and dies a short time later. Ironically, four weeks later, their daughter pulls through. Four weeks later she collapses and undergoes massive brain surgery from which she recovers. Tragically in 2005 Didion’s daughter dies of pancreatitis. These tragedies, from beginning to end, and though longer than one year led Didion to write A Year of Magical Thinking. Reading this book was almost like being in the same room with Didion her honesty, anger, raw edge, frustrations, insurmountable unanswered questions were so vividly explored. Didion opened the door of memoir that led us to realize it is permissible to allow our truth and real emotions to show through in our writing.
We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see, we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know. ~ Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Martha Beck (1962- ) is a Harvard graduate and author of Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic.” Following prenatal testing and a diagnosis of Down syndrome for their second child, Adam, Beck and her husband were warned by the Harvard community that if they decided to keep this child, their well-crafted goals would not be achieved. The Becks chose Adam over Harvard and their goals. I selected Beck for this list because of the courage it takes to bring an infant into the world already knowing the challenges lying ahead. If you haven’t read Expecting Adams, I highly recommend it. You will not turn the last page without having been changed yourself.
If you’d rather live surrounded by pristine objects than by the traces of happy memories, stay focused on tangible things. Otherwise, stop fixating on stuff you can touch and start caring about stuff that touches you. ~ Martha Beck, Expecting Adam
Helen Keller (1880-1968) determined not to let her conditions limit her. Rendered deaf and blind by scarlet fever at age 19 months. Keller learned to read and speak, and she eventually graduated from Radcliff College where she wrote The Story of My Life. Taken from the Dutch language in which her diary was written, the book, The Diary of a Young Girl (aka The Diary of Anne Frank), was published in 1947. Keller went on to champion and lecture on behalf of the disabled. In her writing, she taught us how to sharpen our own eyes and ears to the beauty of the world around us.
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. ~Helen Keller
Adeline Yen Mah (1937- ) is a Chinese-American author and physician. Her memoir, Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, received mixed reviews. Many saw Mah as a whining child born to affluence and then unable to cope with an 18-year old stepmother who abused all the family’s children. I saw the memoir more important from a Mah’s heartfelt and intimate look into the cultural and traditional characteristics of 20th-century China. Despite the mixed reviews, Mah gives us a memoir written from the viewpoint of someone other than an American writer.
You have your whole life ahead of you. Be smart. Study hard and be independent. I’m afraid the chances of your getting a dowry are slim. You must rely on yourself. No matter what else people may steal from you, they will never be able to take away your knowledge. The world is changing. You must make your own life outside this home.” ~ Adeline Yen Mah, Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter
Now it’s your turn: Who stands out in your mind as an important woman in the history of the memoir genre? What about her writing do you believe ignited the surge of women writers to find interest in memoir? I look forward to reading your comments.
A comment was left on Part 1 of this 2-part post about the memoirist Isak Dinesen. You might like to read what the commenter had to say about Dinesen.